Mr. Dalloway: A Novellaby Robin Lippincott
A virtuoso performance of postmodern daring, Mr. Dalloway offers a rich augmentation of Virginia Woolf's classic novel.
It is June 29, 1927ÑRichard and Clarissa Dalloway's thirtieth anniversary and also a day of historical significance. Richard has arranged a surprise party for his wife. As he leaves their house in Westminster to buy flowers for the/i>
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A virtuoso performance of postmodern daring, Mr. Dalloway offers a rich augmentation of Virginia Woolf's classic novel.
It is June 29, 1927ÑRichard and Clarissa Dalloway's thirtieth anniversary and also a day of historical significance. Richard has arranged a surprise party for his wife. As he leaves their house in Westminster to buy flowers for the party, his thoughts turn to Robert Davies (Robbie), a young editor at Faber with whom he has been having an affair off and on for many years. Because of Richard's efforts to contain their relationship, Robbie has exposed their affair in a letter to Clarissa, who tells her husband that she "understands" And today Richard, despite his misgivings, finds himself on his way to Robbie's house-only to be shaken by the discovery that Robbie is not there.
As does the Woolf novel, Mr. Dalloway takes place within a single day, unfolding prismatically with a simultaneity of events: Clarissa walks in London and remembers her courtship with Richard; their daughter Elizabeth searches for answers about her eccentric history tutor's somewhat mysterious and premature death; and a determined and drunken Robert Davies has decided to crash Richard's party, dressed all in white satin, no less! As the novella moves toward its surprising climax, it revisits several of Woolf's celebrated characters-Sally Seton (now Lady Rosseter), Hugh Whitbread, Lady Bruton-while introducing new ones, such as the Sapphist couple Katherine Truelock and Eleanor Gibson, and the strange and beautiful Sasha Richardson.
Imaginative and formally bold as it refracts Woolf's fiction to invent a story completely Lippincott's own, Mr. Dalloway rides forward on waves of a masterfully complex and musical prose, full of wit, linguistic verve, and startling imagery.
Robin Lippincott is the author of The Real, True Angel, a collection of short stories published in 1996 by Fleur-de-Lis Press. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The American Voice, The Literary Review, Provincetown Arts, and many other magazines; he was awarded fellowships to Yaddo in 1997 and 1998. Born and raised in the South, he has lived in Boston for twenty years. He is curren
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Mr. Dalloway said he would buy the flowers himself.
For he wanted to surround Clarissa with them; to choose those flowers, those colours, which would set her off to the best possible advantage; which would complement her. But what colours those would be, he had no idea. And so he had asked Lucy (now he was applying his bowler hat as he examined himself in the hallway looking-glass). And what was it Lucy had said (she was polishing silver at the time; he remembered the refracted artificial light slicing through the room): pinks; lavenders; shades of yellow; periwinkle blues? "Pale colours, sir," he thought she had said. Yes (he straightened his tie), that was it.
Clarissa deserved it after all. For she (he thought now, pausing in the hallway and broodily pondering the past year, as a dark cloud may race across the sky on an otherwise sunny day), she has been entirely patient and good throughout all of this. It was a phrase which had first come to him months ago, one which now, upon occasion, repeated itselfa banner marched to and fro across the floor of his brain: Clarissa has been entirely patient and good throughout all of this (he might have declared on the floor of the House). Perhaps it was because she had surprised him so much, by her response: her tolerance, her goodness, her acceptance (and because of his lack of those qualities? he wondered now). And because it was true (the truth does resound, he thought). He picked up his umbrella.
"I understand," she had said.
And so he was off (BigBen chimed the hourten o'clock); out the door, out of his house and the inherent interiority of thoseor anywalls. (But always, always, in the exhilarating moment of exit, he would recall his excitement, as a boy of seven, standing in the doorway at Fellstree, with his brother Duncan just on the other side, calling to him to come out. Oh, it was bracing! "My best ideas have come to me out of doors," Richard Dalloway had long said.) A man of the world he was now and had been for almost thirty years; yes, a former MP (he had resigned during the past yearhe would write a history of Lady Bruton's family); Mr. Dalloway was off; out; walking; walking in the heart of London, his London, his own Westminster.
Through Dean's Yard he strode almost whistlinga grey, misty June morning, past Westminster Abbey, of course (where, crossing the street to Victoria, a former colleaguewhat was his name? Arnold? Alfred? yes, Alfred Hitchenstipped his hat). And how fine it all is, Mr. Dalloway thought as he made his way through the neighborhood he had called his own for the pasthow many years? (He and Clarissa had moved there soon after marrying in, when was it? thirty from twenty-seven, ah yes, 1897, an occasion they would be celebrating that very evening.) How free he felt, he reflected (for he was still, somewhat, in the interior mode, inside himself), how light and able to enjoy it all, to embrace it and take it all in for the first time inhad a year really passed? This was, he felt now, his chance for a new beginning.
Pay attention, he told himself as he walked. What was it Blitzer had advised? (For he did not have to see Dr. William Bradshaw, whom neither he nor Clarissa liked or trustedand who, in fact, Clarissa had said was a beast. For she would never forgive him, she saidcoming to her party several years back just hours after that poor young man, his patient, had killed himself; and then announcing it at her party! So they had found Blitzer"Blitzer-not-Bradshaw," Clarissa called him.) Exercise. Fresh air. That was what Blitzer had prescribed. And to notice things outside of oneself: notice the park, the trees, the grass, the feel and the smell of the morning air ("take exercise; oxygenate yourself"), the sounds of the city, that building. Observe everything (Richard Dalloway told himself now)for this is life, and it does not last.
And then there was the party to consider, the party that very night; he should turn his mind to that. It had struck him several months ago that Clarissa had always been the one to give parties (for she understood), and he thought it was time somebody gave a party for her, particularly now, on the occasion of their thirtieth wedding anniversary, and at a time when he was worried about her heartan hour's rest every day after lunch had been advised. And so he had decided to do it, to give a party for her, for their thirtieth anniversary. But then he had immediately wondered how on earth one gave a party? He hadn't the foggiest; he would ask his sisters, Edith would know, she would help him. And so he had.
It was splendidhis particular idea, his vision for the party. In his more grandiose moments, which had been few and far between during the past year, he thought of it as the perfect union of man and nature; or, at the very least, when he was not feeling so grand, it was simply a marvelous, lucky confluence. But how it would come off now rested almost exclusively on the weather and whether or not it would clear. ("Whether the weather," he thought he had heard someone say.) It was not looking good, particularly in London; but he had bought up two cars of the special trains that were being run, which was terribly expensive but, he hoped, worth it in the end. And he had read in the morning Times that Sir Frank Dyson, the Astronomer Royal, had said about the all-important weather: "I shall go to bed hopeful." And so he, too, would hope for the best.
But almost immediately another of Richard Dalloway's concerns invaded his mind: how would it go, his being around so many people at once, with his nerves so recently shot and frayed and still somewhat raw? Clarissa had always handled things. Would he be able to cope with it allthe demands, the attention, the stimulation? And would people know about him; would they know his secret? Or would he merely spend the entire time paralyzed with the fear that they knew?
Trying to heed his own command to pay attention, Mr. Dalloway now noticed a young mother and her two chubby-kneed sons sitting on a bench in the park. The mother herself appeared frightfully young and pale and waif-like and both boys had to be less than five. Looking at them sitting on the bench dressed in matching navy blue suits, kicking their feet together and giggling as a duck defecated in front of them, their white teeth a milky blue in that light, it was all he could do to stay on the path; all he could do to keep himself from wavering, from falling off, into the abyss; from collapsing in a heap, right then and there. Of course the mere configurationtwo young boys so close together in agereminded him powerfully of Duncan and himself. But not only that: he had always wished he and Clarissa had had a boya son or sons; but after Elizabeth was born it wasn't possible. He walked on.
Still a handsome man, thought the wealthy widow Stella Bowles, a Westminster neighbour, as she spotted Richard Dalloway walking along a path in Green Park; a strapping specimen of a man, really. Must be in his mid-fifties by now, she reasoned; but he looks at least ten years younger, noticing that he hadn't yet gone white, just grey at the temples, which, people said, was distinguished. Always did take care of himself; he reminded her of a country gentleman, he did; a country gentleman just returned home from fox-hunting.
"Will we see you at the party?" he called to her across the surrounding din of trafficomnibuses, motor cars, vans, taxi cabs. They were on separate, distant paths, and she couldn't possibly risk the damp grass with her white shoes; so she nodded and answered "yes," that "they" would see her. Though truth be told (now she looked away from him), truth be told she would rather not go, though she knew it was something special; knew that Richard himself and not Clarissa was giving the party (she had never cared much for Clarissashe was too tinselly); and so go she supposed she must (her George would have wanted it). It was a bit of a surprise, this partythe invitation saying merely to meet at the entrance of King's Cross Station at nine-thirty that evening. Most curious. And quite uncharacteristic of him too, she thought; what did he have in mind? But go she would, to King's Cross, at nine-thirty, to their partyout of respect and admiration and, yes, something of an eye for Richard Dalloway (she turned back to look at him a final time as he proceeded up the path). How the world loves such a man, she thought, noticing the spring in his walk. The world loves such a man and it is his, the world is his.
Jolly to be recognised, Mr. Dalloway mused, noticing how the ducks in the pond seemed to glide across the surface of the water (he saw something of Clarissa in them}; to see and be seen by those one knows (but did one know anyone, really?); to have recognition. But then the dark cloud raced across his mind again, obscuring brighter thoughts: If she, Stella Bowles, only knew the truth. If she only knew. It was one of the refrains or chants which had haunted him over the past year (for there were manythe truth resounds). If she only knew. If he only knew. If they only knew. What? What would happen? (Well, Mr. Dalloway thought now, pulling at his lapels, that is a thought I do not have to entertain, nor should I, on this historically important, this personally significant June daya point on which he was certain Dr. Blitzer would concur. For only Clarissa knew. And she had understood.)
At the busy intersection of Picadilly, a lovely, young, red-haired woman wearing a red coat and sitting on the top of a moving omnibus stood upclutching onto the railand waved, then blew kisses to a handsome, somewhat older man in a black mackintosh standing on the ground. The man received them with a smack to the side of his face and waved back. (Ah, love, Richard Dalloway thought. Love.)
But then a panic! Where was Clarissa, his Clarissa, this June day, this very morning, now, this instant (just after ten)? For a moment he did not know, could not remember. His mind raced back to earlier in the day: breakfast; Clarissaher blue eyes blazing (still lovely in the morning light)trying to hoodwink him into telling her more about the party (and his teasing her); saying how much she was looking forward to seeing their Elizabeth, who would be coming in on the train after noon; Grizzle's animation upon hearing his mistress's name (and Clarissa giving him a scrap of bacon from the table, which she knew he frowned upon, but that was Clarissa); and Lucy coming in and out of the room, and ...? Oh yes, that was it: she had said she had an appointment with Dolly Lansdown, her new dressmaker, in Bloomsbury; then lunch in Mayfair with Lady Hosford.
Yes, now he remembered, for she had said, too, that perhaps their paths would cross that morning, perhaps they would run into each other; and he had taken her hand and said that he would like that (for they had grown closer in the past year). And then together, at Clarissa's instigation and with her encouragement, they had set about remembering those many, many years ago when they had first come in to London together.
Was it sentimental to be thinking of the past? he had wondered aloud. Perhaps. But Clarissa said it was only appropriate, only right, on their anniversary. And what fun it had been (Clarissa said), coming in to London together. What a treat. It was one of the things which had drawn them together from the beginningboth of them raised in the country, rarely brought to London: the Parrys had taken Clarissa and her sister Sylvia to Kensington Gardens once in the spring to see Queen Victoria, she said; and his parents had brought in their broodthe four girls, and him and Duncan, on the very same occasion (for he could still remember Duncan, a year younger than he wasfour at the timestanding in the lush grass, pointing and saying, "Look, Dickie. The Queen's fat!" How they had laughed. But oh, how their father had reprimanded them afterwards: "Such disrespect for Her Majesty. Really. Well, I won't have it"). Had they met then, as children, that day in Kensington Gardensshe and Richard? Clarissa often wondered aloud. It was possible. But then, and still today, they had that thrill for, that appreciation of the city which only those not raised there could have.
How they loved it. Adored it, really. And they had shared that adoration, which appeared to double, to be a looking-glass image of their growing love for one another, so that the words "London" and "The Dalloways" seemed to join hands and dance. But nearing Bond Streethe had just passed St. James'sMr. Dalloway was saddened by the realisation that it was now most unlikely that his and Clarissa's paths would cross that morning; for he was almost there. Perhaps they would meet on his return, he thought. He would like that. And he felt he needed it, to see her. For he had grown less sure of himself over the past year; had been shaken to his very core; everything, absolutely everything that he had ever knownbeliefs, ideas, thoughts, feelingsall had been thrown off. But it would be all right, he reassured himself nowrelaxation was the key, Dr. Blitzer had said: his and Clarissa's paths were inextricably crossed, mixed. There was a connecting thread between them which stretched as far away as one had to go from the other, a thread which not only connected them, that very moment and forever, but which also always pulled them back together from wherever they had been.
There's Shaftesbury, Clarissa Dalloway thought as she approached it (for she had to be especially attentive to the street names this morning, as she had never before been to the home of Dolly Lansdown, her new dressmaker, since Sally Parker had retired to Ealing). But she knew the city wellthere was a map in her mind; she would find it. She knew the city well because she had walked it time and time again; first with Richard, early on in their courtship, and then alone, as herself, as Mrs. Dalloway. And how she loved itwalking in London. What joy, she thought. She and Richard had, that very morning, been remembering when they had used to come in to London together. How exciting and exhilarating it was (she could feel the excitement now; her heart was racing), walking about London. (It was still exciting.) But then. Together. It was almost too much.
Richard had always loved Trafalgar Square best; he had said it was his favourite place in all of Londonits vast, open, welcoming space. There was the statue of Nelson, of course, of whom Richard knew a great deal, having read history. But also, what was it he always said?that it somehow took him back to the time when the Romans had landed in England. Yes, that was it. (Did he still feel that way? she wondered. She would have to ask.) And what did she love best? she asked herself now. Kensington Gardens? The Serpentine? Bond Street? Oh, it was so like her not to be able to choose one thing.
"There's Clarissa," the well-upholstered Hugh Whitbread exclaimed to his wife Evelyn, pausing at the corner of Charing Cross and Tottenham Court Roads and watching the figure of Clarissa Dalloway proceed down the latter. They had known each other since they were children. And didn't she look marvelous, strolling along (he thought to himself); the very picture of Juneall in yellow like a parakeet (and the yellow in such stark contrast to the grey day, so that she presented quite the silhouette), wearing a feathered yellow hat and carrying herself so upright. Always so stylishly dressed.
"She looks well," Evelyn Whitbread said, in a tone implying insult, perhaps because she herself was not.
"Clarissa!" Hugh Whitbread called out to her, waving his hand about in the air (he was genuinely glad to see her). But she did not hear him (his spirits fell). It was all right, Hugh Whitbread told himself, for he would see her that very night, both she and Richard, at their party. (What could they have planned? Hugh Whitbread had wondered since receiving the invitation. What could it be?) Well, he finally had an ideaan informed idea at that, and he was certain he was right; but Evelyn would not enter into the spirit of the thing, of trying to guess; for Evelyn, who had said she would not go to their party, was not amused: "Who ever heard of such a thing?" she said. "A party that late in the evening. And at a railway station, no less. Really!"
Ah, London, Mr. Dalloway continued, now entering Bond Street (Bond Street shimmered and shone before him; a resplendent, glittering stretch). Back when he and Clarissa were courting he would pick her up at Bourton, and they would take the train in together, arriving at Waterloo, then walk across the great Hungerford footbridge. The arrival was splendid, always splendid. (The city was quieter then, he noticed.) It seemed to open up to them, to extend its huge arms and embrace them, to invite them, pull them in, like a favourite uncle does his niece (just as he himself did with his own nieces). And then once they had arrived at Trafalgar Square; well, it waswhat? Splendour. Glory. Rapture. It took his breath away!
But here Richard Dalloway paused at the curb: where was it Clarissa had said she went to buy flowers? She had told him the rummaged through his mind) ... J, K, L, M (for so his conscious mind worked), oh yes, that was it: MMulberry's.
Mulberry's, Mulberry's, Mulberry's, he mumbled to himselfa mouthful. But there was Hatchards' book shop. He stopped and looked in the window: announcements from Duckworth, Faber (Robbie!), the Hogarth Press. What was new? Well now let's see (Mr. Dalloway took out his spectacles): something by that Freud fellow, a Viennese doctor, a psychologist, whose theories everyone, or so he had heard, was discussing at the momentperhaps it was Blitzer who had mentioned him; rather controversial he gathered. What else? A Mr. T. S. Eliot, a poet; he did not read poetry; leave poetry, Shakespeare and all that, to Clarissa, to the ladies (he thought reflexively); the latest novel by that Mrs. Woolf (who, he thought now, adjusting his hat in the window, despite her keenly perceptive mind andhe must admitconsiderable descriptive powers, had not captured it all, not all of it, in her novel of two years past: for she did not know; could not have knownonly Clarissa knew); and the new KeynesThe End of Laissez-Faire. Should he pop in, just for a moment? he wondered. Buy a novel for Clarissa? Something on animals for Elizabeth (for she was studying to be a veterinarian)? Or some new history, or a biography, for himself? No, not this morning: he would continue on his way, fulfill his mission.
Mulberry's, Mulberry's, he munched the words. Pale colours at Mulberry's. Ah, there it was. He pushed through the swing doors and was greeted by a myriad of scents wafting through the air. There were so many scents and colours, in fact, that he felt submerged into an altered reality, a thick, viscous, overly pungent fantasy world; it was daunting (his nerves were still raw}.
Advancing through the shop like a lioness traverses the jungle terrain, a red-handed Miss Pym (Clarissa had said to ask for her, that she would assist him) approached, asking if she might help.
Indeed, she could, Richard Dalloway thanked her, introducing himself; for he knew nothing of flowers (he looked around againrainbows. He took a deep breathperfume). He told her what he wantedpale coloursand she nodded and smiled (for that was her job). Inquiring after Mrs. Dalloway (a fine lady she is, Miss Pym thought; she had always liked her), she proceeded to name the flowers as she pulled them out of the water: delphiniums, carnations, sweet peas, dahlias, peonies, anemones, roses, irises, freesia, lilac, lilies of the valley, the list went on. But he knew nothing of flowers, he said (trees were more in his line). And so he would leave it to her. They were to be delivered.
But just when he said "delivered," as if a judgement had been cast down upon him from out of the heavens, a loud noisea pop, a boomsounded from the street outside. Richard Dalloway and Miss Pym both rushed to the window. Had someone, someone important perhaps, been shot?
"Sounded like a cannon going off, it did," Miss Pym said, scouring the street scene, laying one hand against the side of her face. "Or a rifle shot."
A crowd gathered, descended (like crows to carrion, Richard Dalloway thought) in the direction of the offending noise.
Millicent Gordon, a healthy, middle-aged, heavily painted Bath matron in London for the day, said she was sure it was the Queen, that the Queen had been shot (and here she clutched her heart).
But wizened old Aaron Frye, who had seen it all in his seventy years, who had been a lamplighter in Chelsea in the mid-to-late seventies; who had lost a grandson in the War, Aaron Frye heard Millicent Gordon and laughed out loud. "The Queen!" he cried, amused. He was sure it couldn't be the Queenfor the Queen was in the palace.
So they hoped, said the Hughes's, a young couple from America on their honeymoon, upon hearing Aaron Frye. "I hope it's not the Queen," said Cindy Hughes. "That would ruin everything." For like hundreds of thousands (millions, perhaps) of others who had made the pilgrimage before them, they were on their way to Buckingham Palace.
"A tyre," Richard Dalloway surmised, deflating the moment as he took in viewamidst the crowdone corner of an off-balance motor car standing in a small, black puddle of rubber directly across the street. It was nothing. And yet it was something in that it had completely exploded his composure; his surenessboth the noise and the ensuing, hungry crowd. Or perhaps it was the stimulation of the shop that was affecting him poorly, for now he felt not quite like himself. Did she really think pale colours, he asked Miss Pym; did she really think pale colours best for Clarissa, or rather Mrs. Dallowayhis wife, for she knew her after all?
Indeed, she did, Miss Pym assured him; it was a fine choice, the best (impressed she was that a man would know these things. How she longed for such a man).
Big Ben struck the hour as Richard Dalloway exited the florist shop, though not, of course, until he had profusely thanked Miss Pym (who had become positively coquettish). As he listened to the bellsone, two, threehe imagined concentric golden rings floating through the air, then settling, melting into the earth. Time was passing. Four, five, six (the golden rings floated, fell); seven, eight, nine (the rings melted; the earth absorbed them); ten, eleven. The bells stopped, and the quiet brought with it now a sense of expectation. Of anticipation. Would something, would someone, answer?
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Mr. Dalloway is full of wonderful Woolfian sentences and moments, but like all good marriages, it complements rather than mimics its partner by maintaining its own distinct personality and agenda. Robin Lippincott has opened the windows (and closet doors), allowing a gust of fresh air to blow through the Dalloways house.
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